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Bill James is spot on… sort of. He writes,

In sports, mathematical analysis is old news as applied to baseball, basketball, and football. Statistical research of player performances has now been routinely applied to improve the results of individual teams. But it has not yet been applied to leagues. This unexplored area holds great promise for sports, and sports fans. Rather than beginning with the question “How does a team win?” - the query that has been the basis of all sports research to this point - what if we begin by asking “How does a league succeed?”

In a way, this is very true. While there are still gains to be made in player performance analysis and projection, we certainly have reached a point of diminishing returns. And studying league behavior more closely could bring enormous benefits.

He continues,

In the NBA, the element of predetermination is simply too high. Simply stated, the best team wins too often. If the best team always wins, then the sequence of events leading to victory is meaningless. Who fights for the rebound, who sacrifices his body to keep the ball from rolling out of bounds doesn’t matter. The greater team is going to come out on top anyway.

He went on to list some ways the NBA could decrease this predetermination: move the 3-point line in, lengthen the shot clock, shorten the games, and shorten each playoff series.

This is dangerous territory. Looking at it purely from an economic standpoint, he could be right, or he could be very wrong.

Let’s use baseball’s wild card system as an example. Maybe it does cheapen pennant races, and it certainly decreases the chances of the best team winning the World Series. But it has been an incredible success. More fans of more teams are interested in baseball for a longer portion of the season. Yearly september attendance has increased tremendously since it was instituted, which is not surprising considering many more teams generally have a shot at the postseason (hat tip: Nate Silver).

So based on that logic, it should be good for the NBA to take Bill’s suggestions, right? Well, maybe not. I’m fairly certain there’s been research that shows that television ratings are generally higher when a dynasty team is playing deep in the postseason (if someone out there can find something on this, please send it over). This could have something to do with the players involved, i.e. Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, or whoever else. But it could also have to do with casual fans having more of an interest in the outcome of the game.

The NBA is actually pretty fairly balanced on these issues: many teams make the playoffs, and yet the best teams generally win. The league has historically been most successful when it has top players that are very marketable. And yet this year’s finals hit record-low TV ratings, despite the fact that Lebron James was involved. Maybe it was too obvious that San Antonio would win, which would make Bill right, after all.

But there’s yet another issue to deal with. How could the league implement these changes without obviously cheapening the outcome? Baseball was able to, simply because most fans still don’t realize how random postseason results are.

We’re getting a little sidetracked, though. This is just one issue, and Bill was championing an entire line of research. And as I said above, I do believe this research is worthwhile.

There’s one area that he didn’t mention, that I believe is the most important league-wide issue to study. For every investment, there is the micro component and the macro component. When we look at player acquisition, the player’s performance is the micro component, and the market is the macro component. This macro element is the reason Squawking Baseball exists, so obviously I think it is important. But it goes along with much of what Bill says. After all, when an investor puts money in a stock, he/she generally hopes the market as a whole will go up.

We just have to be careful. Yes, it is important that fans don’t know who will win or lose going in. But if fans sense that they are being manipulated (as I feel they would if the NBA instituted some of the measures that Bill is advocating), those positive effects will be neutralized.

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